FERGUSON, Mo. – In a field just 100 feet from the patch of pavement where Michael Brown fell, a young girl took to a stage with her sisters and friends and sang for peace.
Volunteers from local churches handed out food. A rapper, “Cool L” cried out over a microphone, “End all violence. We protest when a white police officer kills a Black man and when it’s Black on Black crime we say ‘don’t snitch.’ That’s wrong. We have to end all violence.”
As he preached to the crowd, teens walked by with portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Late Saturday afternoon in the stifling heat as temperatures reached 100 degrees, hundreds of local residents and curiosity seekers from around the country showed up here in support of Michael Brown. Black Muslims from Atlanta mingled with Nebraska college students and housewives with their children in tow. Young, old, white and black came to mourn – some from as far away as California.
All of them came to protest the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old Black teenager at the hands of a police officer on August 9 in this St. Louis suburb – many hoping and praying for peace.
Into the crowd waded Yolanda Banfield from Silver Spring and Rocky Twyman, Founder of Pray at the Pump Movement from Montgomery County. They were seeking answers and hoping to provide guidance to those frustrated by the shooting and the subsequent riots – some of the worst since the Civil Rights movement in the 60s.
“I’m a mother,” Yolanda said. “And when I first heard that boy had been left on the pavement in the middle of the street, dead, for four hours, I had to come and see this for myself. I was compelled to get here. I had to take the temperature. I had to see if this neighborhood was as bad as everyone said.”
After getting there, Yolanda said it was nowhere near the ghetto she was expecting. The neighborhood looked much like Montgomery Village. “This is a community of nice homes and good people. I couldn’t understand how this could happen. But the riots were a product of injustice. People forget we’re not the black race, or the white race. We’re the human race.”
Rocky expressed his exasperation with the riots and helped to organize a prayer vigil designed to bring “peace between the races.” He shook his head at the appearance of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in Ferguson. “I respect what they do, but I tend to see them as publicity hounds. Personally, I think we need more prayer. Before we marched in the 60s Dr. King would have prayer vigils. We’d pray. We’d pray as we marched. We sang spirituals.”
Rocky led the crowd on Saturday in a rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” prompting curious looks from some of the teens nearby whose boom boxes were shouting “F**K the Police!” and tears from older residents who remembered the civil rights movement of the 60s.
“We haven’t come so far as we’d like to think,” said Barry Strong, a long time resident. “Racism still exists. It’s just gone underground. And the police harass us all the time.”
Yolanda agreed, but said the shooting and riots in Missouri are about more than racism. “I think everyone is hurting. One of the things I see when I look at the police – let me put this way – there are many forms of cancer, but cancer is cancer. The root of this is fear. We cannot segregate fear. Fear has no boundary. Police are fearful when they go out on the road. They’re afraid of young black men because they’ve been trained the wrong way. And the young Black men are afraid of being killed by the police. The urban police population is very unskilled and very untrained emotionally and socially.”
St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar, who marched with the protesters Saturday and Sunday as the anger among residents subsided, said police departments need to be seen in communities in a less confrontational way. “We need to show up at baseball games. We need to be seen in churches. Certainly the problem of community policing is one we have to deal with. We don’t do enough of it.”
By Sunday, with the National Guard nearby along with state and several jurisdictions of local police, the scene in Ferguson along West Florissant Avenue, sight of most of the protests, more closely resembled a carnival than the angry riots of the last two weeks. T-shirt vendors in several locations along the protest route sold t-shirts which declared “I survived the Ferguson Riots” and “Hands up! Don’t Shot!”
Meanwhile on Canfield Dr. near the shrine to Michael Brown, crowds continued to gather and vent their frustration and anger.
“I ran into a kid who said he was going to come out and burn down all the buildings,” Rocky said. “I talked to him and after a few minutes got him to laugh. He just had no outlet for his anger. Many of the young kids don’t have that guidance.”
Darryl Alexander, a close friend of Rocky’s and a local clergyman said the riots were a byproduct of years of built up frustration – the militarization of the police department and the lack of respect. “You have to understand. These kids don’t know where to turn. The pressure has been building and building for years. There isn’t a young black man who hasn’t felt it at some point or another. I’m not saying what they did was right. It wasn’t. But listen to their frustration. It’s real.”
Out on Canfield Dr. the frustration could be seen among teens who spoke about “The White Devils in the media,” and “lack of respect.” But the largely diverse crowd ate together, sang together and spoke about turning Michael Brown’s death “Into the spark of peace,” said one of the local rappers.
“That’s what we marched for in the 60s,” said one of the older participants in Saturday’s march. “It’s a march that isn’t done yet.”
Rocky and Yolanda agreed. “We have to teach our young people to turn their anger into something positive,” Rocky said. “We have to overcome again. We need more prayer and more peace.”
“We have to help each other,” Yolanda added. “That’s why I went.”